Discussion Summary on Kant

Question: When making categorical imperatives or any universal laws that many philosophers like to make, there will always be exceptions.  How small does this exception have to be to become irrelevant?

-Kant’s CI’s assume some things, for example the suicide maxim assumes that most people want to avoid pain, which is reasonable. So, there will be some people who don’t think avoiding pain is good, but that is so unusual it is not worth using as a contradiction to his CI. What is?

Group: People who stray from the norm can’t be considered as an exception, because them deriving pleasure from contradictory means is still pleasure, so it can be considered the same thing. There also isn’t a reasonable way to measure this “exception” so you can’t really find a number value that can be defined as irrelevant. In cases when the good of the people is in mind and there are contradictory views to it they are the exception but should not be considered because they are not the goal.

Question: Should you do the morally right thing because it is morally right if you know negative results will ensure?

-Kant says yes.

Group: Answers varied on this one. Some people said yes, because it is better for society to uphold this idea. Because find exceptions is a slippery slope and will lead to worse consequences. Others said no. They believed absolutes are too powerful for this reason. There will always be exceptions and ignoring them can be more immoral than abiding by the rule.

Discussion on Kant – Animals and Everyday Life

In Onara O’Neill’s “Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems”, there were mentions of the value of animal lives in human morality, and the lack of regard Kant has shown towards this issue. Should animals ever be used as mere means? What determines the value of an animal’s life?
The answers to these question may vary greatly depending on who is asked. It would seem to most people that the inherent value of a fly’s life is much less than that of a chimpanzee, but there isn’t really a concrete reason behind this. It’s not simply based off of their impact on the world: if an animal’s moral significance was determined by its effect on humanity or the world, then bees, which help sustain our food sources, should be valued very very highly. In most cases, animal lives are based on appeal when it comes to moral decisions, even though this should not be the case. Pets take priority over pests.
Another question has arisen in regards to Kant’s philosophy in general: how can an average person apply Kant’s philosophy in everyday life? Kant moral philosophy features the renowned categorical imperative, but who is really to say that acting while keeping in mind the value of people as an end will really cause your actions to be better? It was mentioned that, perhaps in our everyday lives, we apply this train of thought subconsciously, such that we run through the categorical imperative without even knowing so; it is only in the extreme edge cases where categorical imperative falls apart. Despite this, some of Kant’s core values seem to fail in very common cases; most notably, his positions on lying and suicide.
Although the preachings of Immanuel Kant can be seen working in everyday life, it quickly becomes controversial when edge cases, like animals, or other situations that Kant fails to consider show themselves. A lot of us already follow this philosophy without knowing it, and have our own positions when it comes to difficult cases.

Discussion summary: O’Neill and Kant’s CI (second form)

1. Is a lack of beneficience really immoral?

To expand on this: Kant talks about justice and beneficience, the first being mandatory and the second being sometimes mandatory. Consider a person who is always just (ie. uses no one) but by some miracle manages to never help anyone (not beneficient). Would this person really be immoral? Kant never really gives any indication as to how often you should be beneficient. We were conflicted about this.  None of us really agreed with Kant – we thought it was not immoral. On the one hand, it could be amoral: it seems intuitive for this to be the conclusion, since this person would be neither harming nor helping anyone, seemingly the definition of neutral. On the other hand, since this person has not intentionally harmed anyone, it seems that this could be taken as a good person.

Source: Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems, p. 262

2. Kant thinks that beneficience is an imperfect duty. How do you know when not being beneficient is acceptable/unacceptable?

This question is somewhat related to the first. Again, Kant never supplies any help with deciding when to be beneficient. We did agree with Kant in that it is impossible to always be beneficient, but we had no conclusion on how to tell when to be beneficient. It does indeed seem to be subjective, as Kant says.

Source: Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems, p. 262

3. Is there a hierarchy of morality between beneficient actions?

I proposed a situation where you are deciding between donating to 2 charties: one for kids in Africa and one for cancer. However, you can only donate to one of them. Is one of these objectively better than the other? We decided that helping the thing/person/group that needs the most help is the “morally superior” action to take.

Source: Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems, p. 264

4. Do you agree with Kant’s perspective on unconditional value of rational beings?

Kant thinks that human life is valuable because “humans have…capacities for autonomous action”.  We didn’t agree. We thought that humans can remove their value by being generally unethical (but no necessarily 100% unethical). However, this is obviously somewhat of its own can of worms, since no one really agrees on what defines being ethical. We didn’t really want to get into that debate so we left this question at that.

Source: Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems, p. 268

Discussion Summary on Kant

  1. How important do you think good will is compared to the results of our actions? Which is more important generally?

I formulated this question based on Kant’s assertion- “It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will” (Kant, The Good Will and the Categorical Imperative, pg. 88). The importance of good will is highly subjective, and I was interested to gather feedback on the importance that my peers put on it.

I answered by stating that personally, I think the quality of the results of our actions are more important in general than the intentions behind those action. Depending on the outcome of our actions, our intentions can easily be rendered redundant or worthless if the outcome of our actions is the opposite or contrary to our desired outcome. People are very often imperfect, and so what they consider to be the right thing to do could inadvertently be causing more pain than happiness. Human beings are not entirely rational creatures, so their actions are very often irrational.

My discussion group generally agreed with me, but they put more of an importance on good will than I did, and they believed that there is approximately an equal importance to the intention and the outcome, as good intention is the best thing that you could ask for in a person’s actions, but the results of our actions are in reality what we are left with in that particular instance regardless of intent.

2. Do you agree with Kant’s declaration that actions are only morally acceptable when the principles that inspire them can be acted on by everyone consistently?

I chose this question because the idea of universality and of not making an exception to ones’ self when considering the morality or the importance of the actions that are suitable for a given situation is very interesting. Humans are selfish creatures, so to think that one should take into account the principles behind one’s actions and to not take such actions if those principles, if applied universally, would result in disaster is an interesting idea. Kant would consider someone that does not take the universal application of principles into consideration as “acting unfairly, making an exception of himself, living by a set of rules that work only because others are not doing what he is doing” (The Kantian Perspective, pg. 155).

Here I agreed with Kant’s perspective on what makes an action moral. Principles behind actions should remain moral when their principles are applied universally in different instances, and marginal cases should not be taken into account, where one’s own best interests can cloud one’s objectivity and judgement.

My group believed that Kant was incorrect with this assertion, and that there are indeed instances where there can be moral actions without moral principles (an example that comes to mind is learning that the company that you work for is only donating to charity so that their sales will increase, and that is the sole reason for them doing so). Sometimes it is right to make the decision that an action, even though the principle behind said action is immoral, is the most reasonable action to take, and the one that will in the end produce the most happiness.

3. According to Kant, lying is immoral as its morality depends on its maxim and not on its results. Do you agree with this proclamation?

I chose this question because I am fascinated with how humans interact and can coexist in a civil society. In The Kantian Perspective, Kant describes the lying promise, a promise that is with no intention of going through with it. Kant thinks that even if the lying promise may save us from a lot of pain, it is still an immoral thing to do, as the “morality of the action doesn’t depend on its results, but on its maxim. And my maxim here is not universalizable. So my action is immoral” (The Kantian Perspective, pg. 160).

I thought that there are times where lying does indeed seem to be the moral thing to do, as there are scenarios in the real world where lying would save oneself and others from harm, so I disagree with Kant, and say that the frequency with which people may lie could germinate distrust, which to me is just a part of being human. It is natural not to put our full trust in others, and it would be a very dangerous thing to do.

My group agreed with me on this topic, and said that situationally lying can be the best course of action and even a moral one, because it can decrease the net amount of pain that is suffered had the person decided against lying.

Pros and Cons of Mill’s Utilitarianism – Discussion

The Questions

(1) Mill believes happiness to be the ultimate goal of all humans. Is this controversial in any way?  If so, why?

(2) Imagine you were a utilitarian. How would you respond to the criticism of the Greatest Happiness Principle? i.e Should we convict an innocent person so that the general public may be happy?

The Relevance of the Questions 

(1) I asked this question as I believe that happiness is an integral part of Mill’s philosophy. Not only is it a central idea of his, but it is also a highly subjective topic that is interesting to view through a philosophical lens.

(2) The Greatest Happiness Principle is one of the more controversial topics of Mill’s teachings. I wanted to see how my peers defended it as Mill has had to dispell misconceptions about it in chapter 2 of his book Utilitarianism.

Group Discussion on the Questions 

(1) Our group agreed with Mill’s view of happiness playing a pivotal role in life. We decided that most sacrifices made in our lives are so that we may obtain happiness in some form or another. This is where we began to differ from Mill’s beliefs.  We found Mill’s ideas of high and low pleasure too subjective that applying it as a universal rule would be arbitrary. Hobbies that I would consider high pleasures may not even bring pleasure to another person. For example, I love soccer, however, some people may detest the idea of using your foot to dribble a ball. This does not invalidate my love for soccer as a high pleasure.

(2) As a general principle for following morals, we found utilitarianism to be a good code. However, when put up to the extremes as done so in the example of convicting an innocent person, utilitarianism can show some flaws. We came to the conclusion that utilitarianism should be used more as guidelines rather than a strict rulebook. We also focused on Mill’s use of the word “tend” which we felt indicated a degree of flexibility. We should lean towards the actions that tend to result in good moral consequences. Mill’s justice also seems to be more fluid than set in stone. This means that in a situation like the given example, our sense of right and wrong should come into play to make the right decision rather than blindly following utilitarian values.


Summary of Mill Group Discussion


  1. In an example that Mill gives, “he who betrays the friend that trusts him, is guilty of a crime, even if his object be to serve another friend to whom he is under greater obligations.” (Mill, Page 6) From the perspective of the friend whose trust has been broken, yes this is morally bad. But from the perspective of the other friend, this action is morally good. By what means does one pick which perspective to judge from? In this instance, the individuals helped and harmed are of equal numbers.
  2. Mill says that the greatest happiness principle “is an existence as far as possible from pain.” (Mill, Page 5) This suggests that one with no pain in their life will have the greatest amount of happiness. But without pain, would one even know something to be happy? Is pain not needed as a necessary contrast?
  3. Mill discusses that some people, over the course of their lives, may have broken down from preferring higher pleasures and attempted an “ineffectual” combination of both higher and lower pleasures. (Mill, Page 4) Why might this combination be ineffectual, and can it be altered to be more effective.

In the view of Mill, actions which are beneficial to the most amount of people are considered good. Mill also believes that higher pleasures, that is pleasures of the intellect, are more satisfying than lower, sensual pleasures. Mill says that only a fool would choose sensual pleasures over intellectual pleasures.

These questions relate directly to the views of Mill. In question one, it would appear that the action results in equal numbers of people being helped and harmed. This leads to the question of whether or not this becomes a good or bad action, as the action was beneficial to the majority, in a way. Question two directly questions how Mill defines happiness, and how one proceeds to achieve feelings of happiness. Finally, question three discusses Mill’s views on higher and lower pleasures.

All three questions were discussed, though there was particular emphasis placed on question two and three.

Question one was discussed less so than the other two, though we were unable to come up with a means by which to decide which perspective to view the situation from. Because there wasn’t a larger group of people benefiting over a smaller group of people, the choice was not obvious. While one person was wronged, another person would also be wronged had the scenario been flipped. So in either case, there is one person who is done right by, and one person who has been done wrong by. It is a tricky scenario, and for Mill to lay out a blanket rule, as he has, does not seem to take into account the complexities of every individual situation.

As a group, a consensus was reached for question two, which agreed that some form of pain is required at some point, otherwise one cannot know true happiness. This is because without pain, one would only know happiness. If one only knows happiness, then it really does not stand out as anything special. Therefore, we did not quite agree with what Mill was saying, though we do agree that a life filled with more happiness than pain is ideal.

For question three, we again did not quite agree with Mill. Some people in the group feel that there is nothing wrong with seeking lower pleasures, and therefore disagreed that any combination of lower and higher pleasures would be ineffectual. It seemed to reason that a combination of the two would produce the best results, as that fully encompasses all pleasures one could seek.

Our group had an excellent discussion, and we heard several different points of view for all three questions.

Discussion summary on Epicurus

Question: What do you think are Epicurus’ views on love in terms of a romantic partner and marriage, as one of the highest goods and forms of pleasure?

Explanation: Epicurus offers guidelines to live a good life, seeking the highest possible form of an intrinsic good, which is pleasure. He declares pleasure is “the beginning and end of the happy life” (p.2 letters to Menoeceus ). In order to achieve pleasure, he outlines the difference between natural desires, of which some are necessary and unnecessary, as well as vain desires, all of which being unnecessary (also on p.2). Furthermore, Epicurus suggests that the art of wisdom is among these requirements for pleasure. In terms of wisdom, he argues the highest form is through friendship (#27 of the principle doctrines of Epicurus). Additionally, Epicurus states, “we must love our friends as much as ourselves” (p.5 of Cicero). Thus, I posed the question, where does Epicurus draw the line about love? To many, marriage, a family, and the “love of your life”, is key to living blissfully. What do you think an Epicurean view of this is? Epicurus demonstrates that “We may instead avoid certain pleasures when, by doing so, we avoid greater pains. We may also choose to accept pain if, by doing so, it results in greater pleasure”(p.2 letters to Menoeceus) Many may argue that romantic relationships bring agony and pain. Others argue they are the ultimate source of happiness. Thus, I provoked the question of the reason behind Epicurus’ deliberate avoidance of reproduction, a family, or one true love.

Answer: My group discussed the concept of romantic love being part of the vain and unnecessary pleasures. This was controversial as some argued that one does not get pain from not being in love, whereas others stated many experience the ultimate pain without love and a family of their own. My group also explored the possibilities of love leading to heartbreak. Thus, perhaps Epicurus views romance to be more problematic than pleasurable. Additionally, perhaps Epicurus views friendship as the bread of love. Moreover, engaging in a sensual romantic relationship could parallel indulging in luxurious foods. Ultimately, he deliberately avoids the topic of romance as friendship seemingly acts as a bare necessity.

Question: What do you think Epicurus means by the “art of dying well” (p.2 letters to Menoeceus).

Epicurus argues that a key aspect of living a life of pleasure is to not fear death. On page 1 of letters to Menoeceus, death is described as being no concern to us humans. Epicurus explains, “all things good and bad are experience through sensation, but sensation ceases at death”(p.1 of letters to Menoeceus). Thus, if you are dead you have no sensations. He goes on to argue that if all things end at death, then we should not agonize over it. Moreover, Fearing death will give us anxiety and further us from a life of pleasure. Knowing Epicurus’ views on death itself, what do you think he means by the art of dying well. If death is nothing, how does one die well?

Answer: My group reached the final verdict that Epicurus uses “dying well” as an emotional achievement rather than physical. They argued that dying well is essentially to have lived well. Moreover, to die well involved having achieved static pleasure. We further explored what constitutes having lived well. Can you achieve static pleasure infinitely? Is dying well a mentality of satisfaction across your whole life, or is it finally reaching static pleasure. This question evoked more questions of what constitutes as dying well, and to what amount of pleasure must be reached. We concluded that this is a personal decision, and living well would be ones own experience free from pain or anxiety.

Discussion Summary on Epicurus

I drew discussion from Epicurus, Principal Doctrines. We discussed points that I felt required more thought from Epicurus such as points 4, 8, 17, and 35.

Point 4 states that “continuous physical pain does not last long” and that “extreme pain lasts only a very short time, and even less extreme pain does not last for many days at once” (Anderson, “Doctrines” 1). However, it strikes me that there are readily available counter-examples such as terminal cancers that are continuously painful until death, or diseases of the nerves that cause pain receptors to fire at uncertain intervals. Or consider the case of a torture victim. Such a person could experience extreme pain for many days at once.

I raised this objection as a sort of wishful thinking by Epicurus, but in the discussion, it was pointed out that Epicurus may have been offering this as advice to overcome that which is under your control and to accept that which is not under your control, similar to his stance on the fear of death.

In point 8, Epicurus observes that “some pleasure are only obtainable at the cost of excessive troubles” (Anderson, “Doctrines” 1). While we all agreed that this was theoretically true, we also recognized this did not offer practical advice on how to live, which pleasures to seek or how to obtain them. In his letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus hints at the virtue of Prudence as a way of knowing which pleasures to seek and which pains to avoid, but does not go into more specific detail (Anderson, “Letter” 1).

Among the group, we all shared similar concerns, so this point did not generate much controversy or discussion.

Points 17 and 35, taken together suggest that those who live unjustly or inflict or allow harm to others will be haunted by guilt and that guilt is a form of pain that outweighs any pleasure they could achieve (Anderson 2,3).

But Epicurus cannot know what thoughts or feelings anyone else experiences; he can only guess. Certainly, there appear to be misanthropic sociopathic persons who show no signs of guilt over their amoral and selfish behaviors. Indeed they behave exactly as you would expect someone feeling no guilt to behave. How can Epicurus, with no evidence, be so confident of what they feel? Epicurus can only state that if he were in the position he, himself, would feel guilty. Or consider a sadist, someone who finds pleasure in causing pain to others. Such a person would not only not feel guilt when they cause harm to others, but in fact derive pleasure from doing it. (Perhaps Epicurus suggests that such people cannot exist, but I am not sure this is well established.)

During the discussion, we also discovered that Epicurus appears to contradict himself on the tendency of gods (if they exist) to intervene in the affairs of men. First, he teaches Menoecus that there is no reason to “fear the gods” (Anderson, “Letter” 1). Then he claims that the unjust cannot be truly happy because they will “dread the eye of heaven, and fancy that the pangs of anxiety night and day gnawing at their hearts are sent by Providence to punish them” (Cicero 16). If he is correct in his assertion that the gods do not intervene and there is no reason to fear them, then the unjust have no reason to fear the gods, since they do not intervene.

As we ran out of time, Jade (our TA) suggested that Epicurus was saying only a wise man would never choose to act unjustly and therefore only an unwise man would choose to be unjust, and therefore the unwise man would also fear the gods. I hope I have recorded her idea accurately here. In any case, I personally find this line of reasoning unsatisfying. A person could be unwise only in certain areas. That is to say, An atheist who chooses to act unjustly would have no fear of divine repercussions.

Works Cited
Anderson, E. (2006). Epicurus, Principal Doctrines. [ebook] Available at: http://blogs.ubc.ca/phil102/files/2013/08/Epicurus-PrincipalDoctrines-epicurusinfo.pdf [Accessed 19 Jan. 2018].

Anderson, E. (2006). Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus. [ebook] Available at: http://blogs.ubc.ca/phil102/files/2013/08/Epicurus-LtrMenoeceus-epicurusinfo.pdf [Accessed 19 Jan. 2018].

Cicero, Marcus Tullius., and Harris Rackham. Cicero de Finibus. Harvard Univ. Press, 1931.